Once Upon A Time: Remembering Helen Kubik

Many of us, when we approached the age of reading for ourselves, selected books that offered larger-than-life stories with fairy-tale endings to somehow make our lives a little more fantastic. For those of us who went to Pine Grove Elementary in the 1970s, we lived that fantastic fairy tale, with open-space classrooms, a large reading area, energetic and life-inspiring teachers, and Helen Kubik, a principal as beautiful and as magical as Glynda, the good witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Mrs. Kubik – known to us in our earlier years at Pine Grove as Ms. Powell before she married Mr. Alex Kubik, an assistant principal at the school – was known for her effervescent personality, matched exquisitely by the L’Origan by Coty perfume she wore each day. Her voice was soothing, supportive, and always accompanied by a glistening smile. She towered over us as young learners, and we all looked up to her in innumerable ways.

I was six when my first-grade teacher, Ms. O’Donnell, appreciated an “essay” I had written about Abraham Lincoln. I was given the chance to share my writing with the rest of my peers at Pine Grove over the PA system during a week-long celebration of our presidents. I remember vividly standing in the office, gripping my essay with both hands, as Mrs. Kubik held the heavy, silver microphone just above me.

I looked up to her as she spoke. “Boys and Girls,” she said into the microphone with that sweet, sing-song voice. “We have some special students who are going to be sharing their own writing about our presidents to celebrate Presidents’ Day.”

She introduced us, and then she lowered the microphone to my level. She gave me a nod, and I inhaled the strong scent of her L’Origan, a fruity bouquet that smelled different than any of the perfumes my mother wore.

It was a scent that represented a presence of compassion, support, and safety. Around Mrs. Kubik, we didn’t feel intimidated; we felt invincible.

I started reading my essay, and when I got to the part of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, I called her Abraham’s “beloved.” Ms. Kubik chuckled, and when I looked up, she was beaming with what I presumed was approval, and so I continued reading. When I finished, she looked at me with those eyes sparkling with hope and belief, and spent some time talking with me about how much she liked that part of my tribute to our 16th president of the United States.

And now, nearly 50 years later, I sit here realizing how much of who I am is because of this woman, the leader of my elementary school where so many other teachers from that era served as role models to me and thousands of impressionable children in the 1970s.

Helen Kubik was everywhere: in our classrooms, at our school events and plays, and in the hallways ready to offer a smile, especially to those who needed it the most. To me, as an emotional, yet happy-go-lucky kid who struggled academically but beamed on stage, she always put each one of her children first as the individuals they were, and not the statistical numbers they might add up to be for any data sheet defining success or failure in the classroom. At least that’s the way it always seemed to me.

Mrs. Kubik was a loving, compassionate individual who, above everything else, saw us as tiny, impressionable human beings that just needed somebody to believe in them. She allowed us to hold on to our fairy-tale dreams and moments of magical wonder while we worked hard at becoming lifelong learners. Instead of preparing us for any alternate “real world” where people were driven solely by numbers and bottom lines, she prepared us to believe in ourselves first, and to be there for others who needed us, for any reason. To accomplish this first would allow everything else to fall into place.

And it did. Here we are, 50 years later, living strong, productive lives where people still come first. As a teacher myself now for 30+ years, I look into the eyes of every one of my students, offering my own hope and belief in each of them as individuals who have dreams, ambitions, and simple desires to be acknowledged. I remember what it was like all those years ago when Mrs. Kubik offered that to us, and the need to be believed in is as important for our children today as it was for all of us, all those years ago.

When we completed our last year at Pine Grove in the mid-1970s and moved up to the scary and intimidating world of junior high school, Mrs. Kubik left us with the following words:


From Your Principal With Love,

Close to my heart is a secret place
Where dreams are stored away
And sturdy candles of faith are kept
Against a lonelier day.

My students are treasures I keep apart,
Cradled in hope within my heart —
Snub-nosed profiles, picture clear
Perfect moments, priceless-dear,
Etched in eternal time to be
My children,
The very soul of me.

Each child builds my world anew
A shaft of sunlight breaking through.
Each shape my tomorrow, change my life,
Banish my doubt and fear and strife.
Contentment now settles with this days sun.
My part is through, school years well done.
Pine Grove but a castle we built in the air.
Now it tumbles and leaves but a memory there.

These years that I have shared with you —
The tender, the frightened and fun times, too —
Your laughter and your precious pain,
Autumn leaves through summer rain,
My loving you — your loving me,
A kaleidoscope of memory.

Know wherever, whatever your future may be
You are treasures that none can take from me.
Now go freely to conquer your world,

Fly free,
     My students,
          My children,
               The soul of me!

There are so many of my peers whose lives were formed, strengthened, and empowered by Mrs. Helen Kubik to love ourselves, to love others, and to live our lives driven by compassion for all. She was more than a principal to us; she was magical, and will always be, faithfully and forever: Once Upon A Time.

Gretchie’s Gifts: Free December Download

For the month of December, I am offering Faith, Hope, and Legacy: a Collection of Christmas Reflections, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” at no cost to you.

“Gretchie’s Gifts” is the story that kicked off our annual gift drive for the children at Sinai Hospital’s PICU. The story behind the story is compelling, and it took me over a year to finally compose it and share it with all of you. When I released it two years ago, it became an Amazon bestseller almost immediately. Since then, I have shared the story with thousands of readers, and now I want to share it with you – for free.

Please enjoy your free download of Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, and after you read “Gretchie’s Gifts,” please consider donating to our drive or purchasing a gift from the wish list.

May your holidays be filled with love and light,


The Story Behind Our Toy Drive for Sinai PICU

Here’s why we do this for the beautiful children in the Sinai Hospital PICU:

 In 1981, I owned a 1968 Ford Falcon – my first car that was desperately seeking love. I was reminded of this at every red light, when I would have to throw the car into park, rev the engine just enough as if I were soothing its little hood, and then drop it into drive and push on before it stalled out. We named her “Deuce,” and she became the vehicle, both literally and figuratively, for my first group of high school friends to explore life beyond the boundaries of home, and beyond the tired old wheels on our rusty bikes.

Given that first taste of freedom, my friends and I chose to brighten the lives of some individuals who were less fortunate, or who might be spending the holidays alone. We created a group called The Smile Merchants, and we spent 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas visiting 30 hospitals, pediatric cancer wards, senior centers, and nursing homes bringing smiles to those who would be spending their holidays away from home.

My short story, “Gretchie’s Gifts,” embodies that power. Gretchen was a friend from high school whom I wish I had taken the time to know better. We were like toddlers, always practicing parallel play in our circles, never really connecting but always aware of what each other was doing. We did connect a few years agoat a viewing, and she reminded me that she had never been a Smile Merchant but had wanted to be one. That night, I dubbed her an honorary merchant of smiles (nobody had a more beautiful smile than Gretchen), and we stayed in better touch after that. We chatted online whenever our paths crossed, usually very late at night. In our last chat session, Gretchen told me this most extraordinary story of the greatest gift she had ever received. “This is a story that you need to tell,” she wrote. “I will,” I said.”I promise.”

Soon thereafter, Gretchen died.

The story stayed with me for a year, and then in November 2016, I finished writing” Gretchie’s Gift.” While it is a work of fiction, its foundation is grounded in fulfilling Gretchen’s wish to tell her story.

There’s something deeper, though, that I need to share with you. For good or for bad, I have always had a sense for the fragility of life, and in my journey, I have had the honor and privilege to meet or know of people that are true champions at living. Meggie Curd and Emily Davis, along with my sister Cindy, are three such individuals.

Meggie Curd and Emily Davis were never students of mine. I never even met Emily in all her young years as she changed the lives of so many while battling cancer. Yet, I am a member of the community comprising thousands whose lives were touched deeply by such an inspiring, courageous girl, a 15-year-old artist and hero who shared the passion of living and loving so strongly that it reached us, stayed with us, forever changing our lives and making us better individuals toward each other.

Emily’s love and inspiration touched those who knew her well so deeply that, in knowing them, I was touched forever by her strength in working with others, helping them see beauty within themselves.

That love, that courage to make the most of today and to allow others to see it as well, is with me as strongly today as it was when Emily died.

Here’s why:

When I was much younger, still a teen in high school, I took a class called Education for Responsible Parenthood taught by Mrs. Falcone, and in that class I met a wonderful young girl named Meggie Curd, who, at the age of 8, was battling cancer. Now, this was 34 years ago that I met Meggie, and I did not get many chances to spend time with her or even get to know her well as I might a friend I see every day. But the frequency of visits did not matter at all. Meeting Meggie just those few times was all I needed to understand that we all have choices in our life in how we use our precious moments here on Earth. We can spend our time in sadness or grief over our past or our present, or we can embrace the new moments that are here now, and are yet to come, filled with possibility and with hope, filled with whatever we choose to make of them.

Meggie did two things: She decided to see love in those moments, and she decided to share that love with others, so strongly and powerfully that it stayed with them so that they, too, could share that magic and that love with those they met along the way.

When Meggie died, we all cried and mourned her passing. But when we hugged each other in support and in comfort, we knew that each of us contained a gift from her to carry with us for the rest of our lives. She allowed us to see the beauty in these moments that we experience, and we have the awesome responsibility of sharing that love, that beauty, with all whom we meet.

That responsibility, that love, stays with us forever.

In 2005, a year after Emily died, I was at a local restaurant with a good friend when I saw a few members of Emily’s family a few tables away. I wanted to let Emily’s mom know that her daughter, through her friends and her family, had touched me deeply with that love and seeing the beauty in each moment. A few others from the Davis party joined us at our table, and I shared my story of Meggie with her, telling her that Emily’s memory will not fade away; it will stay strongly with us just like Meggie’s memory is still with me and so many others.

One of Ms. Davis’ friends who joined us at the table had been Emily’s nurse. She looked at me and smiled. “Meggie Curd?” she asked. I looked at her, a little incredulously and nodded. “Meggie was my patient,” she said. “She touched people like that. She’s still making a difference.”

I got over the initial surprise that Emily’s nurse had also known Meggie as well. And today, I take great strength in the way our lives cross in such important ways. It reminds me that the ripple of love, of courage, of hope never ends as we carry with us the people in our lives who have passed on.

There is grea tsadness in the passing of a friend, a loved one, especially so young. But their lives, and the way they lived them, serve as reminders to us all how there is much to savor in a single moment. Each passing second contains an opportunity to make a difference, to reach out and remind each other that we do have a choice. In Meggie and Emily’s memory, and in the memories of Gretchen and so many others that have passed on so early in their lives, I choose to see that love and pass it along.

My sister Cindy, who has battled cancer since 1990, continues to be a daily inspiration to me. She chooses to live, every day, with positivity and love. In everything I write there’s a thread of my sister’s will to live, her belief in the beautiful, and her courage to face life’s greatest demons with a smile and an unwavering, indomitable strength to carry on.

Each of these amazing individuals – and countless others – inspires me to share their stories and how they have lived their lives. Each of them has taught me that all we need is a single ray of hope, whether that comes from a letter, an ornament, a greeting, a smile. We cannot control how or when it will be received; it is our job to merely offer it, and offer it as often as possible.

As I get older, I sometimes see myself as that broken-down Falcon, chugging along and throwing it in park a little more often than I might like. But thanks to all of you, and especially my faithful readers, for being that light that lets me drop it in drive each day and continue along on my own little journey. May you continue to see the light, and be the light, to all in your lives.

Your donation to Gretchie’s Gifts for the children at Sinai is so appreciated. As you begin your holiday shopping, thanks for thinking of Meggie, Emily, and Gretchie, and all of the beautiful children at Sinai.

Officer Caprio Community Memorials Continue A Month After Her Death

by Rus VanWestervelt
Exclusive for Baltimore County Breaking News
June 21, 2018

A month ago, Laura Joy Rode and Erinn Patrick, third-grade teachers at Seven Oaks Elementary and residents of Parkville, sat in their classrooms with their students until 9 p.m. as police wrapped up their initial investigation of the death of one of their own, Officer Amy Caprio.

In those dark hours, however, their students were thinking less about the fear of a lockdown and more about what they could do for the police officers in their precinct who were mourning the loss of their partner.

“The very next day,” wrote Rode in a Facebook post, “my third grade students asked if they could have some time to write thank you cards to the police officers who kept them safe. . . .Not one complaint of being tired or worried. . . just wanting to thank the brave men and women who serve.”

The desire to give back, to support the Parkville and surrounding precincts, has only strengthened since May 21 when Officer Caprio was killed in the line of duty.

Rob Williams, a resident of Rodgers Forge and Citizens on Patrol leader and volunteer for the last ten years, decided to create a memorial display in his front yard on Regester Avenue, honoring all ten Baltimore County officers who have died in the line of duty.

“I was deeply moved, said Williams. “I wanted to do something to remember her and her ultimate sacrifice.”

Williams contacted a company called Flagology that had the specific hero flag template he was looking for. He gathered the photos of the other officers and completed the display on June 10.

“The memorial will continually be in place,” said Williams. “Several neighbors have already commented to me about how moving the memorial is to them.”

Such memorials are on display in other neighborhood communities, including Carney and Loch Raven Village.

Other residents around the area have used their creativity to raise money for various funds.

Maria Greenwood has formed a group that makes police survival kits, which are delivered to police stations all over the state of Maryland. According to Lisa Westervelt, one of the members of the group, Greenwood has been awarded for her community-building efforts and recognizing officers for their hard work.

“When Parkville experienced its tragedy, Maria ran around getting donations needed for the kids and delivered a ton of them to the station in support of the officers who had lost their sister in blue,” said Westervelt.

According to Greenwood, they delivered 200 police survival kits after the death of Officer Caprio.

“Praying that it brings much joy to all the officers at Parkville Precinct!” wrote Greenwood in a Facebook post. “Your community loves and supports you!”

Kim Lyons, founder and owner of An Etch Above, created Memorial Cups in Officer Caprio’s honor. For each cup sold with the memorial design, Lyons is donating $10 to the FOP 4 Memorial Fund.

“As a graduate of Parkville High School, former resident in Parkville and Perry Hall, and business owner in Parkville, Maryland, I have felt a deep sadness over the recent loss of Officer Amy Caprio from the Parkville precinct,” wrote Lyons on her website. “After much discussion with local law enforcement and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, I have decided to offer these Memorial Cups in her honor.”

According to Lyon’s website, they have raised over $750 in Caprio’s memory.

Others from around the state have created fundraisers built around their hobbies and organizations. One such effort to raise money was done by the Chesapeake Jeep Club, among others, who hosted a ride to honor Caprio.

The ride, which took place May 26, was organized by Prince George’s County K9 Officer Mike Cicale.

In the description of the event, Cicale wrote, “Join us as [we] pay our respects to Officer Caprio, her friends, family, and members of the Baltimore County Police Department . . .[for] a memorial ride to honor her life and sacrifice.”

Although Ellicott City resident and Jeep owner, Sunny Yoo, could not participate in the event, he is mindful of the work that Cicale and others do to honor fallen heroes.

“[Cicale] sets up most rides to honor the fallen officers throughout Maryland,” said Yoo. “I think it’s nice to see Jeep clubs participating in these events. It just shows how much respect they have for people who serve and enforce the law.”

Yoo witnessed the tribute of K9 vehicles lined up along 695 and was touched by the what he saw. “It was very emotional to see people come together to honor her,” said Yoo. “I felt chills and had to turn my music off and have a moment of silence. ”

The tributes and memorials will continue throughout the summer. Both Towson and Cockeysville organizers of their respective Citizens On Patrol (COP) programs will be honoring Officer Caprio on August 7, which is National Night Out and recognizes those who serve their communities to keep them safer.

“We are honoring her at this year’s National Night Out for the Cockeysville precinct,” shared resident Tracey Daniels. “I think more people will come support the police at this event because of her.”

According to Pat France, Vice President of the Towson-Area Citizens on Patrol (TACOP), they will hold a moment of silence for Officer Caprio at their event on Washington Ave. at 6:20 p.m.

Even with school being out, Seven Oaks Elementary teacher Laura Joy Rode is still touched by the actions of her third-grade students.

“It has been truly inspiring to see the kids react with love, concern, and empathy,” said Rode, reflecting back on her children’s desire to act. “These young children wanted to take action, to do something, to show the police officers and first responders not only that they are needed and appreciated, but that they are sad for their loss. We all can learn from these big hearts!”

Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections

Sharing with all of my Baltimore Writer followers…

Thank you very much for your interest in Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts,” my latest Christmas story in memory of my dear friend, Gretchen Trageser Smith.

This is a 121-page eBook (PDF format) that can be opened on any smartphone or tablet. It includes three short stories, a collection of essays, and a series of Christmas song reflections.

This is currently a FREE publication. I am asking for donations, however, and ALL proceeds received for this eBook between December 8 and December 18, 2016, will be donated to the PICU at Sinai Hospital to ensure that the children who will be spending their holidays (and beyond) in the Intensive Care Unit will have a little light during this time of year. Faith Smith, Gretchen’s sister, and I will personally deliver the donation to Sinai before Christmas.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in ePUB format, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in MOBI format, click HERE.

To download your copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in the KINDLE store for just $0.99, click HERE.

If you would like to make a donation before or after you download this publication, please do so below ($5, $10, or $25). If you are interested in donating a different amount, please contact me directly at rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com.

*** Please share this link with your family and friends. We want to do everything we can to brighten their Christmas. To learn more about the Children’s Hospital at Sinai, go HERE.

REMEMBER: ALL donations made between December 8 and December 18 go directly to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

To make a donation, please go HERE and scroll to the bottom of the page.

THANK YOU! I will keep everyone updated on how much we have collected for the PICU at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

as always…………………rvw


Memorial Day: Remember The Sacrifice


All photos taken and copyrighted by Rus VanWestervelt at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2016. Free to share with attribution.

My alarm went off at 2:57 a.m., and three minutes later, I received the text from my friend Trina.

Leaving now to commence with project honor Memorial Day.

Twenty minutes later, at 3:20 a.m., after I had gathered my photo gear and thrown some journals and pens in my backpack, I headed out the door and hopped into her Subaru wagon. We were on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, seizing a rare opportunity to photograph the hallowed grounds at sunrise.

We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery at 4:30, and we weren’t surprised that there was already a line of cars ready to be escorted to one of several areas. When we pulled up to the gate guard, she looked at the list of invitees on her phone.


“Madani and VanWestervelt.”

“We want to begin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” I added.

She looked up from her phone. “You only get one choice.”

“Make it the Tomb, please.”

She checked our names on her list and smiled.

“Park behind the line of cars in the middle and wait for further instructions.”

We pulled up to the dark SUV at the end of the line. There were about seven cars ahead of us. Trina turned off the car, and the solemn sounds of songbirds filled the still-dark morning air. Here, even in this line, we could feel the reverence; the opportunity we had was not lost on us. And in those 30 minutes before the gates opened and we were escorted through the memorial grounds, we talked about life, about sacrifice, about America. Yet, even as we spoke in hushed voices, there was a touch of anxiety of what we were about to experience.

As the cars in front of us began to roll forward, and we crossed through the gates and turned left at the Memorial Hall for Women Soldiers, it hit us both, and words were replaced with short gasps and heavy sighs as we moved slowly through the magnitude of loss and sacrifice.

Arlington_rvw_14We were immersed in hallowed grounds that seemed to whisper, through the early morning scents of fresh detritus:

Remember our sacrifice. Remember our commitment to America. Remember the fares of freedom.

As Trina drove on, I thought about my nephews, Kevin and Kyle, who continue to fight for our freedom. I thought of my ancestor, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army who fought in World War II, who was buried here. I thought of my former students who have enlisted and who serve to protect and defend, at any cost, our freedoms. I thought of the countless number of friends who have children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have fought, or who currently serve, to keep our country safe and free.

I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unending lines of white graves marking each and every one of those sacrifices. Still, as we drove on in silence, I was haunted by another feeling. We were heading to the Tomb of the Unknowns, protected by United States Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, every single minute, of every single day, since midnight, July 2, 1937.

When we reached the tomb memorial, we could already see the sun’s deep hues rising in the east. We grabbed our gear and walked swiftly to the steps that were in front of the tomb, and I felt as if I had lost the ability to breathe. There, just feet in front of me, was the Tomb of the Unknowns and a single Guard standing sentry, silhouetted against the red wash of our Capital’s horizon.

Arlington_rvw_01The few photographers who were ahead of us were already busy setting up tripods and claiming their vantage points for the photo session, but Trina and I took the moment to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.

As the sun prepared to rise on American soil, protected for centuries by brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the ritual of remembering them continued on, without missing a beat, for the last 79 years.

Arlington_rvw_02This was why we were here. First to honor, second to document. And although the rush of the sun peaking over the horizon at 5:43 a.m. was not lost on us, neither was the fact that through sunrises and sunsets, humid Summer days and snowy Winter nights, America is standing guard to remember, to protect, to defend, for the very foundation of freedom for all who call this great nation their home.

We found our place a little to the south of the Tomb and began the process of taking photos, trying to capture the essence of the experience.

The routine for the Tomb Guard watching over the graves is precise.

The Tomb Guard on watch marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb, turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds. The Guard then turns and faces north, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. The Guard marches 21 steps down the mat, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces south, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. This routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

As I was switching cameras to get a wider perspective of the scene, I noticed another Guard just to my right, walking toward the soldier protecting the tomb. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was beginning, and I lowered my camera and succumbed to the overpowering emotion of the moment.

Arlington_rvw_05The soldier stopped in front of us and said, with an authoritative voice I have only heard in movies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is now taking place, and you are expected to remain silent and standing during the duration of this event.”

I removed my hat, and only with the greatest deference in remembering the second reason that I was here, I raised my camera to document the event.

First honor, second document.

When the ceremony concluded, and the sun had nearly pushed its way through the horizon’s line, Trina and I broke away and wandered among the grounds. We spent the next hour away from the camera clicks and conversations and found a certain solitude among the lines of graves that rolled over hills and never seemed to end. With each new ridge that revealed a new vantage point to capture the magnitude of sacrifice, there before us remained a new pasture rolling with thousands of small white graves, each with an American flag in front that seemed to recognize the individual names chiseled into the granite and marble headstones.


Leon David Sachter. . . Paul R. Greenhalgh. . . Rolland Nyle Davis . . .

By 7 a.m. we left the Cemetery and said little. We were filled with the respect, the honor, and the magnitude of sacrifice in those brief two hours that we had spent among the graves of the men and women who died believing their sacrifices were worth our freedoms.


I took these photos to document our nation’s most hallowed grounds at the sun’s symbolic rising of another day of freedom. But their colors, their images cannot touch what I carry inside of me. We sometimes forget that these sacrifices were — and are — made for us to live the way we do.

Perhaps I need to live my life a little more closely to the rituals of the Tomb Guard, where, even in my darkest moments, I never forget — even for a second — the sacrifices that were made for American freedoms. Very few of us ever have to make the choice of life or death for another, especially millions of Americans who will never know us personally. I will carry this perspective with me, fortunate for our freedoms, and respective of the sacrifices.


God bless the 1.1 million American service members who have died for those freedoms. May we remember you every day, every second, the sun rises over this great and free nation.



Chasing Fire: Understanding the Death of Baltimore’s Mayor in 1904

 In 2003, I completed my 306-page thesis on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. In my research, I stumbled on a little-known fact about the mayor of Baltimore during that historic conflagration, and I composed a much shorter piece (below) about his death and my pursuit of the truth about how he died. In the process, I found myself trying to understand the death of my own father, who fought fires in Baltimore for 29 years before he died.

The parallels between the death of these two men were haunting, to say the least.

Read on. All of the information is true, triple-checked in multiple published sources from 1904.

And do me a favor: Let me know if you think I should pursue this story.


by Rus VanWestervelt

The more I go, the less I know.
Will the fire still burn on my return?
Keep the path lit on the only road I know.
Honey, all I know to do is go.
~The Indigo Girls~

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.55.43 AMI


Wes, as my father was known in his firehouse on Greenmount and 32nd Street in the heart of Baltimore, introduced me to fire when I was six. He was taking me to my first Orioles game and decided to park behind the station, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. When he opened the back door to the firehouse, the acrid rush of diesel suffused the air around me, in me as I stood before a magnificent and intimidating sign on the back of Truck 7.

He led me on a tour of the station, walked me up the black iron steps that spiraled tightly to the left, and offered me a chance to slide down the fire pole, which I declined. When we returned to street level, he lifted me with ease into the driver’s seat of the hook and ladder, where I stretched my arms around the steering wheel, peered over its edge to see the back of Engine 31 so close to me, and then reached up to pull a blackened cord that rang the fire bell loudly.

That illusion of being a firefighter–being just like my father Wes–ended before I could realize what was happening.

A booming voice echoed in the fire hall, dispatching both fire engines to a service call. Wes grabbed me out of Truck 7 as firefighters jumped into fire pants and boots and the firehouse gates rolled up, revealing a bustling Greenmount Avenue. One firefighter ran out with flags and stopped traffic as Wes carried me to the side of the station.

Sirens wailed, bells rang, horns blared.

From my father’s strong arms, I watched Engine 31 and Truck 7 rumble past us and out of the station.

I wanted to follow them, chase them out the door. And that was when the hunger, the passion for fire was born.

The front gate began rolling down just as Truck 7 cleared the house, and I looked over Wes’s shoulder to watch that magnificent, intimidating sign turn left and out of sight:




22 April 1989

Several hundred feet from where my father lies dying, I sit against painted concrete in a cold hallway at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where I watch the EKG monitor above me. Dad’s life line is erratic, jumping from zig-zagging peaks to near-flat lines that make me think the end has finally come for him. He is taking his final breaths after a medic call three years ago infected him with hepatitis. A most prolonged, agonizing death, in the line of duty.

With me in this hallway is my brother-in-law, Rob. We have spent the last 30 minutes in silence, just a fraction, though, of the 17 hours since paramedics brought Dad here.

We are outside a small room where Mom sits with some of her children.

Dad remains on a gurney through double doors and down another hall. My brother Jim, who fights fire in Baltimore County, is with him, as is our grandmother and a few other family members.

I keep my distance. I’ve already said goodbye.

My eyes return to the monitor, where the zig-zagged peaks have become frantic. I look to Rob, who has nothing but strength for me, and I rest my head against the cold concrete and close my eyes. The monotone whispers seep from Mom’s room but have no meaning. We all pass this time a little differently.

What seems like a minute passes.

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.





13 Years Later

The screen of my lap top is black, empty. I can’t find anything to bring it back to life.

I’ve been here at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for just over two hours looking for new information on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. My story, about the men who fought the greatest fire in Baltimore history, is going nowhere beyond the greatly publicized facts: in early February of that year, firefighters from Baltimore and neighboring states chased fire around Baltimore’s harbor for nearly 30 hours; on the evening of February 8, more than 1,500 buildings lay charred across 140 acres of commercial land; Baltimore’s entire financial district and the original colonies established in the seventeenth century had been reduced to rubble and ashes.

I push away from the table and return the three green document boxes filled with handwritten military letters to the information desk. Should I continue this blind search or call it a day? I pay no attention to the old man taking my boxes.

“That’s a good story, that fire,” he tells me. He rocks back in his worn, wooden chair after taking my boxes and locks his hands behind his head–a makeshift headrest that seems comfortable.

I nod in kindness.

“The real story happened after the fire, you know.”

I tell him I did not.

“If you want a better story, find out what really happened to the mayor a few months later.”

I say nothing but shrug my shoulders, now mildly wondering what he is talking about.

“The mayor,” he says. “They say he killed himself after the fire, after just getting married.” He leans forward and looks up at me over the counter.

“That’s what they say, at least. You won’t find much about it.”

He pauses. We don’t blink.

“There’s a reason for that. There’s your real story.”

He smiles, jots down a few reference numbers for me to look through some more rolls of microfiche that I never asked for, and passes me the slip of paper.

“Good luck. Maybe you’ll figure out what really happened.”

I turn and head toward the drawers of microfiche just on the other side of the Archives building.

Figure out what really happened?



I spend weeks following the old man’s advice and research all that was written about the mayor’s death. Smith & Wesson .32 caliber handgun “of the latest pattern” used; bullet enters through the right temple and exits just above his left ear; powder burns are light, and estimates are that the pistol was fired at least 8 inches from his skull. All this happening 113 days after the Great Baltimore Fire, 16 days after his runaway marriage to Mary Van Bibber, and four minutes after leaving his new wife alone in her study, just 9 feet down the hall.

None of this matters to me, though. After reading dozens of articles written about the fire and the mayor, I feel detached from all of it. Just words on pages printed 100 years ago.

I feel nothing.

So I decide that, tomorrow, I will visit Mayor McLane’s row house at 29 West Preston Street.


* * *


From Maryland Avenue I turn right onto Preston, and there it is. So anticlimactic, I think. I have passed this place so many times on my way to downtown Baltimore, realizing now that, for every block I drive through Baltimore–anywhere, for that matter–I am passing by history. Events unknown. Unrevealed. Still locked up behind sheets of plywood and plaster walls.

I park on Preston and stand in front of the row house where McLane died. In the late 1960s, The Greek Orthodox Church converted the mayor’s home and three others into an annex for its congregation. The other houses to the right along Preston are still in their original state. Time-worn planks of plywood cover first-floor windows, but the second and third-floor windows all seem to be of original, uneven glass; some are shattered where rocks have been thrown through, while others are intact but show their age, holding decades of dirt, pollen, cobwebs. These houses sag with the weight of history; even a fresh coat of paint along the gingerbread trim that adorns the windows and the edges of the roof would not reignite their charm. They are tired, ready for demolition.

I am disappointed, as I know the chances of ever getting inside one of those boarded-up row homes is remote, at best. Still, I need to see for myself the layout of the rooms, where Mary rested, where her maid Lizzie Redchurch ran up the stairs when she heard gunfire, where Robert McLane died.

I have to do this. I have to find some way to get into one of those original row houses, just doors away from the row house that Mary Van Bibber and Robert McLane called home.




The Thursday after I stood in front of McLane’s home, I meet my friend Trina at our local YMCA for our usual cardio workout.

I tell her the fascinating story of the end of the mayor’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death.

I share my frustration in not being able to get into one of those row houses across from the Greek Orthodox Church.

She looks at me in disbelief.

“You mean the Greek Orthodox Church on Preston?”

I nod, suddenly realizing the serendipitous connection my Greek friend, Trina Kalathas, has with the same Greek Orthodox Church across the street from where McLane died.

The same Church that had turned McLane’s house into a Greek Annex.

And, as my luck has it, the same Church that owns the rest of the row houses along West Preston.




Next day: overcast, with sporadic light rain.  Trina parks on West Preston, across the street from the strip of row houses, and we sit in her Hyundai as I replay the last minutes of the mayor’s life. We are here to meet Father Dean, who will unlock 41 West Preston for the first time in many years.

Father Dean is very busy. He is a harried-looking man who thinks first of his church, his mission, his people. He sits behind a desk in his rectory, a room filled with papers, books, and plaques on the walls. He seems eager to help, but first he has questions. Who am I? Why am I doing this research? How did the Church play a role in the story, both in the past and now? The church is celebrating its own anniversary soon, and he is concerned that some local writer spinning stories of murder in his annex will not be good for his parish.

I answer his questions and pledge a donation in appreciation for his time and for the opportunity to enter the row house.

A few minutes later, we are on West Preston Street, facing the row houses.

I shoot a few pictures of McLane’s house as well as the home a few doors down on the right. I frame the shot, and I see the row of houses return to their natural state, looking pristine. For a moment, I hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves in front of me, the bustle of citizens passing by to my left, then to my right on this holiday afternoon. Windows seem to be opened randomly along the second and third floors on this late May day.

Perhaps, I think, we will not be alone. Perhaps in the coming minutes we will discover some truth about the mayor’s death that had not been considered 100 years ago.

And if we are not alone, perhaps what we discover inside and on the third floor of 41 West Preston Street might just bring some relief, some resolution to those who join us, perhaps, in spirit.

I snap off two pictures, happy to capture this image.

I turn to Trina and the priest and nod.



Father Dean unlocks the first door, and Trina and I step into the small foyer area while we wait for the priest to unlock the second door. Fresh air mixed with rain mingles with the damp, musty smells of this tiny area. A gust of wind seems to breathe new life into these old walls.

In the low light the priest struggles to find the right key to open the main door. After several failed attempts, Father Dean smiles.

“Got it.”

The rush of the stagnant, cool air blows through the foyer, around us, and out the front door.

Father Dean steps out of the way. Trina takes the lead.

The stairs aren’t easy to climb; bulky banisters line each rickety and narrow flight of stairs. They twist sharply, always to the left, as they spiral up to the top floor.


The weather on the morning of Monday, May 30, 1904 was cool and calm with rain showers threatening from the northwest. McLane spent the morning with his new wife, Mary. It was Memorial Day, and all city offices were closed. He had no need to go into City Hall, had no meetings scheduled, and thus spent most of the day with Mary. Early in the morning he met socially with Mr. Henry J. McGrath, who noticed that the mayor was in an excellent humor, laughing and joking.

After McGrath left, McLane spent the next hour catching up on some memos and preparing for meetings later in the week with the Burnt Fire Commission, established to handle the aftermath of the fire just three months ago.

Mid-morning, McLane and his wife took a brief walk along Preston Street. They returned home just after 11 a.m., and McLane then scratched out a memo to Judge Henry D. Harlan, informing him about a meeting he would like to have the following day regarding the status of student examination papers he was reviewing.

In the early afternoon, he enjoyed lunch with Mary and his older stepson and retired with his wife to her study in the third floor front room of their upscale row home at 29 West Preston Street.




Trina and I reach the third floor, and I cannot believe how small the rooms are. I pictured bigger rooms, longer hallways, and plenty of space to move about freely.

Instead, the hallway is only four or five steps between Mary’s study and the mayor’s dressing room, where most of his belongings were packed. We compare the layout with the published reports of Mary’s home, and the only difference we can detect is that these rooms no longer have doors.

Each room is less than 14 square feet in size. Armoires, beds, and dressing mirrors took up the majority of the space available in each room. Add a fireplace against the right wall and plenty of boxes still unpacked from the move, and the McLanes lived in one very tight space.

Father Dean seems uneasy already. He has appointments waiting for him across the street.

We mark where the pieces of furniture would have been arranged: armoire toward the back against the left side wall, tall dressing mirror in the back left corner, and a large bed against the opposite wall, with the fireplace just to its left, and a small closet tucked neatly between the fireplace and the back wall.

After we determine where the furniture would have been placed in each room, Trina assumes the role of Mary and I the role of McLane.

We are ready to reenact the mayor’s final minutes.



At 3:11 p.m., Robert McLane joked with his wife in her study about the way she had tied up a bundle of clothes, presumably to be packed away for the summer season, and he made plans to take a second walk with her later in the afternoon, before the rains came. She thought the idea of a walk was good, especially after such a big meal, and asked only that she have the chance to rest a bit in her study, alone.

The mayor honored her wish.

“Well, I’m going over and straighten some things in my wardrobe,” he said, crossing into the hallway and leaving Mary in her study.

A click of her study door. The four steps to his dressing room in the rear on the third floor. And then, a second click, this from his dressing room door closing. Inside this room, he planned to unpack summer clothes he had brought over from his father’s residence, as well as some personal papers and letters, including a congratulatory letter he had received recently from his sister in France.

Two rooms separated by nine feet.

Silence followed for four minutes. Mary would tell authorities later that she spent those moments resting, alone, in her study.


Trina and I move to the front of the house, where Mary’s dressing room was. There, we talk and joke about bundles being tied up, taking another walk, and what we might do after dinner.

“I’m going to unpack a few things while you rest,” I say. I leave Trina in the front room, close her imaginary door, and walk the few steps down the hall to the back study, which I enter and pretend to shut the door to the hallway.

Our intention is to wait in our respective rooms for four minutes so that we can see how loud a gunshot might sound in contrast with the long silence. I don’t have a gun, of course; I plan on using the journal I brought with me and merely hit it hard against the wall.

Two minutes into the reenactment, a loud “Bang!” two flights below shatters our silence. It startles all of us out of the reenactment. Father Dean calls down the stairs to see if anyone is on the ground floor, but there is no answer.

Trina, closest to the stairs, goes down to the ground floor to see if we are no longer alone.



Breaking that silence at precisely 3:15 p.m. was a loud, sharp sound that was followed by a muffled thump, as if something had fallen. Mary later said that she was startled by the sounds, which she described as something like a shutter banging once against the back of the house, causing something to fall inside the back room on the third floor, where the mayor was unpacking.

She called Lizzie Redchurch to come upstairs to check on the mayor. Lizzie was already on the way, though, believing the noise to be more alarming.

She knocked on the mayor’s dressing room door.

No answer.

Lizzie turned, took three steps to where Mary stood in the doorway to her study.

“He’s not answering, ma’am. Shall I try again?”

Mary nodded.

“Open the door, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned, retraced those three steps to the mayor’s closed dressing room door, and turned the handle.

At first she did not see him in the small room. She panned right to left, looking first over the bed at the fireplace against the right wall, then the small closet in the corner,  the closed window against the south wall, and then the dressing mirror, which stood tall in the far left corner of the room.

It was here that she saw the mayor’s reflection, a man dressed in a dark suit who did not, could not answer his maid’s persistent rapping.

Lizzie, her face now white with fear, looked over her shoulder to Mary and whispered, almost unable to speak, “Why, Mr. McLane has fallen down!”

Mary hurried to Lizzie at the other end of the short hall. Together, they entered the room and rushed to the mayor, lying on the wooden floor in front of his dressing mirror. He lay still as Lizzie kneeled to his side.

For a moment, silence returned to the room, as they thought the mayor had suffered a brief fainting spell. Lizzie put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder to wake him. But just as she leaned in to whisper his name, to nudge him a little harder, she noticed the blood that began to seep from where McLane’s head rested against the wood.

Lizzie Redchurch gasped.

“Oh, dear God.”

She backed away from the body and showed Mary the blood that was now flowing steadily from under the mayor’s head and along the floor.

Both Mary and Lizzie left the mayor and the room, screaming.

At 3:15 p.m., just four minutes following shared laughter with his new wife only steps down the hall in her study, Mayor Robert McLane lay dying.


“Just the second door slamming in the foyer. Everything’s fine.” Trina climbs the three flights of stairs and returns to Mary’s dressing room.

Trina and I try to pick up where we left off, but the noise terrified us, derailed us, and I think that Lizzie Redchurch must have been just as startled when she was on the first floor and heard the sound of a gunshot on the third floor. If that sound had been a mere four or five steps down the hall, it would have been so alarming that there would be no other possible response but one that was swift and immediate.

Father Dean looks at his watch and realizes that we have already spent more time in the house than he had planned. Back at the Church, several colleagues are waiting for him to return, and he urges us to wrap up our reenactment.

I feel that we need at least another hour to play out several scenarios of how the gun might have been fired, who else might have fired it, and how it eventually ended up under McLane’s body before he fell to the ground.

Begrudgingly, I finish the roll of film, taking pictures of every angle of every room. Father Dean waits for us downstairs, in the foyer.



 Much like the speed with which flames consumed six full blocks within the first hour of the Great Baltimore Fire, news of a single gunshot in the mayor’s dressing room spread quickly.

Soon after leaving the room, Mary composed herself surprisingly well and immediately gave orders to everyone in the house. She called her son, Ralph, to the third floor and sent him to alert Dr. A. Trego Shertzer, a physician who lived just two doors down on the corner of Preston and Maryland Avenue, and bring him immediately to help the mayor.

Mary then sent Lizzie to the home of Mrs. Elliott Schenck, a long-time friend of hers who lived just a few blocks away for help.

Within one minute of the events that had begun to unfold, Mary was alone with Robert McLane as he lay dying.

Ralph ran into Dr. Shertzer’s front office and screamed for help. The terror that filled Ralph’s voice startled Dr. Shertzer enough that he wasted no time asking questions. He grabbed his hat, ran past the young Van Bibber, and hurried to 29 West Preston. Within three minutes, Dr. Shertzer was by the mayor’s side.

When he reached the room, he found the mayor lying on his face upon the floor. His head was twisted toward his left shoulder and rested in a pool of blood that flowed from a “horrible wound” through the right temple.

He turned to Mary, who seemed to be paralyzed with fear.

“Mary, listen carefully. I need you to send out a summons at once to all of the physicians who can be reached.”

But instead, Mary did not move. “Good heavens! Why did he do it?”

Dr. Shertzer repeated the need for her to assemble as many physicians as possible, but only with stern encouragement did Mary eventually leave the room with Shertzer’s words of hope that, perhaps, more  physicians would help the mayor’s chances for survival.

But that was not Dr. Shertzer’s intention at all. In fact, he sent Mary out of the room to occupy her, to make her feel as if she could do something of importance to help her dying husband.  Later that night, Shertzer would explain to a Baltimore Sun reporter, “The moment I examined the wound I saw that the mayor could not possibly live, and I did not want to have the responsibility of being the only physician with him when he died.”

While he waited for other physicians to arrive, he placed pillows under the mayor’s head and body to bring some comfort, if any.

It was then that Dr. Shertzer first saw the gun underneath McLane’s body. He picked it up and examined it closely. The gun was fully loaded, with the exception of one cartridge, which he assumed had just been fired.

* * *

As Shertzer tried to comfort the mayor and examine the weapon, Lizzie Redchurch had reached the home of Mary’s friend, Mrs. Elliott Schenck.

Schenck wasted no time in sending Robert Kempf, a servant, to be with Mary. On his way to Mary’s row house on West Preston, Kempf stopped by the Central District police station to tell two officers on duty of the mayor’s condition. Both men had already heard the commotion on West Preston, however, and were preparing to go to the house to see what was the matter.

Kempf, Redchurch, and the two officers raced toward 29 West Preston Street.

* * *

Just moments after Dr. Shertzer discovered the pistol and returned it underneath the mayor’s body, Dr. Nathan R. Gorter arrived at the scene and was horrified by the mayor’s wound. He looked around the room, desperate to help in any way possible.

Dr. Gorter hurried to the only window in the room, just inches from the mayor, and opened it. A rush of cool, humid air filled the room.

Gorter encouraged Shertzer to move the mayor closer to the window, where he hoped the mayor would be more comfortable.

Dr. Shertzer hesitated. He wasn’t convinced that moving the mayor a few inches was going to make a difference in his condition. But Gorter ignored Shertzer’s concern and started to move McLane’s body across the floor, dragging the revolver still under his body.

Within minutes, three more doctors joined Shertzer and Gorter. William Greene, William T. Watson, and Joseph Baborg all entered the bedroom in equal horror at the mayor’s condition. The last physician to join the others was Dr. Claude Van Bibber, the brother of Mary’s first husband. Dr. Van Bibber had remained close to his sister-in-law in the years that followed his brother’s suicide. In direct contrast with the other five physicians surrounding the mayor, Mary’s brother-in-law seemed surprisingly composed and in charge, taking such actions as meeting with friends and members of the press outside to offer that, although there was no doubt that the mayor had shot himself, it looked almost certainly that the shooting was accidental.

In the mayor’s final moments, nine men surrounded Robert McLane, including Adjutant General Clinton L. Riggs, who had led his men courageously during and immediately after the Baltimore fire in February. He had heard the news of the mayor’s condition and rushed to his friend’s room, understanding the inevitable, yet wanting to be with him in his last minutes.

No reports documented the whereabouts of Mary in the mayor’s final moments.



Back on Preston Street, Father Dean looks for keys as Trina stands nearby.

Closer to the mayor’s home, I lean against the cold brick building in the light rain and stare up at the brick façade.

All is still.




Precisely at 4:55 p.m., one hour and forty minutes after the bullet had passed through the mayor’s brain, Dr. Claude Van Bibber made his way through the crowd, found a Baltimore City police officer on the edge of West Preston Street, and informed him officially that the mayor was dead.

It was only at this time that the police were involved in any capacity in the shooting, and now the death, of Baltimore’s mayor.

A death that, within 24 hours, would be declared a suicide, a “pistol-shot wound in the head from hand of deceased while suffering with mental dementia. Contributory cause of death is shock and cerebral hemorrhage.”

Case closed.



 Father Dean pulls the door closed, turns the lock, and gives the knob an extra twist.


He hurries back to the Greek Orthodox Church, and Trina and I head back to her Hyundai. We drive along West Preston and pass row home 29, then 41. Trina turns right on to Howard Street, and West Preston disappears.

I should be grateful of what we have already learned, but I want more. Being there, acting out some of the reports of Mayor McLane’s death, was not enough.

We inch our way through the city, crawling past buildings scarred by fires–some from long ago, some only hours old, still standing in outright defiance. They hold the reminders of how vulnerable we will always be to fire.

Trina turns on Charles Street. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the windshield wipers scraping across the front glass window. I want nothing but for it all to leave me, dry up, go away. But I see orange. And red.





I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

“Do you understand what has just happened?” my brother-in-law asks.

I nod.

Jim, my brother, comes through the double doors. Enters the small room where Mom waits. One whisper heard now as he tells Mom that Dad is dead. She stands up, leaves the room, collapses in Jim’s arms, then disappears behind the double doors that open and close now as routinely as the chambers of a heart, allowing the stream of family members to come and go, come and go.




At a red light on Charles Street, I hear the wails of a fire engine approaching the intersection just ahead of us. A hook and ladder turns left onto Charles, and the KEEP BACK 500 FEET sign fades from my view as the truck weaves its way through snarled traffic before turning right and disappearing down a side street.

Wipers sporadically clear the light mist from the windshield.

Gas fumes mixed with rain find their way into the car. Swirl around me.

Trina asks what our next move is.

I wonder how significant it is that Mary’s first husband died as mysteriously, why the Baltimore Police weren’t more involved between the time the gun was fired and when the mayor drew his last breath, and how a town, still reeling from the devastation of the fire that burned down its city, dropped this story within hours of the mayor’s graveside service.

Was it just as ridiculous for me to chase it, especially when the likes of H. L. Mencken scratched out only a few sentences about the mayor’s death decades later, alluding to McLane’s inability to handle the stress brought on by the aftermath of the fire?

I’m no Mencken, but I can’t let this one go. My research on Mary ends in New Jersey in the form of a postcard-sized picture of her, decked out in burlesque clothing and, from what I can gather, married again.

“I think our next move is to head north. See what Mary was up to after she left Baltimore. Up for the chase?”

Trina nods, the light turns green, and we go with the whish of the wipers clearing the rain.

“Fire and rain,” she says, and I laugh.

“Yeah, Fire and rain.” I add, as we drive north, suddenly in silence.



# # # #


A Chill In August (Re)Ignites The Fire To Teach

It reached 77 degrees today, on this, the 24th of August. Blue sky, patchy white clouds, and the eerie absence of a Baltimore humidity that makes thousands of locals usually proclaim, “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”

In Baltimore, it’s been neither this summer; just one late-spring day after another. Heat waves have lasted hours, not days, and nobody has been asked to be reminded of the endless days in winter where polar vortices and near-blizzards were making us stare at the summer months on the kitchen calendar.

The real cold front this summer, though, had nothing to do with the weather. It occurred on August 11, when news quickly spread that Robin Williams – comedian, actor, and goodwill activist – had taken his own life.

His death sent a chill in each of us for many different reasons, stirring an unsettling rush of emotions. Whether we felt the chilly sting of childhood memories, the angst of another life lost to depression and mental illness, or the dumbfounding shock of the loss of a great human being, we felt the chill deep in our hearts far longer than we thought possible.

Some of us feel it still.

I appreciated Williams’ stand-up humor or his role as Mork from Ork. It was his movies, though, especially Dead Poets Society, that made a mark on me at the most vulnerable months in my life.

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams

20140812-071531-26131782.jpgFive events happened in the span of 66 days in 1989. They changed my life because I made the choice to realize my little spark of madness, open my mind for the positive, and accept the charge to live fully. For me, it was a 66-day gestation period of what Carpe Diem really means. Since those 66 days, I have lost my way on several occasions, but I keep coming back to my foundation from that experience.

On April 22, 1989, my father died.

On June 9, 1989, my mother and I took a trip north to New England for a change of scenery from the daily reminders of our lives without her husband, my father. We visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the graves of Emerson and Thoreau moved me as much as when I spent the afternoon at Walden Pond, reading excerpts from “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”

On June 17, 1989, despite my resistance to see anything that was popular or trending (we didn’t even know that word existed in 1989), I saw the movie Dead Poets Society with my best friend. I had just finished my second year of teaching, and the portrayal of Mr. John Keating by Robin Williams echoed the sentiments swelling within me from the death of my father and my trip to New England.

On June 24, 1989, 63 days after the passing of my father, 15 days after retracing Thoreau’s steps, and 7 days after seeing the movie Dead Poets Society, I wrote this in my daybook:

“Going to New England made an impact on me that I pray to God I will never lose. . . .Thoreau has made an impact on me like no other. His natural philosophies of “Simplicity” and “Carpe Diem” are the ways that I have been haphazardly living my life. I don’t want to overdo it, however. All I want to do is seize the day and have as much control over my life as God will allow me.”

And this:

“Yes. I love teaching, and I will continue to educate. But my style will change, and my focus will change. I can’t do it all as a teacher. So therefore, I must focus my classroom to resonate a very specific theme or intention. Much like the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society, I want to teach my students to seize the day, to see their independent strengths and weaknesses, to dare to strike out and find new ground.”

And finally this:

“I will not be one of the masses leading my life in quiet desperation. I am a happy man, and I don’t have any regrets. I love this world, and I will strive to leave my small mark to make it just a little better place in which to live.”

On June 26, 1989, I started my 5-week journey with the Maryland Writing Project to become a certified Teacher-Consultant.

The fusion of philosophy, spirituality, and pedagogy had occurred within me, and I carried with me the spark to teach, to make a difference, to accept the dare to strike out and find new ground.

Twenty-five years later, on this chilly afternoon in August, on this Sunday before classes resume at sunrise tomorrow, I can feel the fire burning within me to teach, to inspire, to seize the blessed gifts of being a classroom teacher.

We are given so few chances in life to make a difference. It’s what we do with those chances that changes lives. I will not spend a moment of my time in my classroom grieving the loss of a great actor and human being; I will, instead, continue to ignite that fire to learn, to embrace the importance of individual strength and confidence, to engage my students in literature that resonates truth and passion for living, to empower them with the mighty pen so that they, too, can change the world with their words.

I slip on a light sweater and review my notes for the first week. My Daybook is overflowing with ideas about what to teach, and suddenly 180 days seems like such a finite number. I turn to day one, and focus.

Carpe Diem, I think.

For you, Robin, yes. But for 142 others as well who have a world of dreams around them.

It is time to share the fire. It is time to stand on new ground, and teach.


Where I’m Writing: Prospect Hill Cemetery


I spent the afternoon at Prospect Hill Cemetery here in Towson, six acres of burial grounds on preserved land just feet from the hectic circle joining five of Towson’s busiest streets.

I am working on a feature that will be published September 10, just two days from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore.

The feeling here is strong. I am struck with a certain reverence for the men and women who shaped our communities and gave us the opportunities that we now have. Had it not been for the Hillens, the Jarrets, the Bosleys (among others), I doubt we would be so proud to call this our home.

The picture above is, perhaps, the most haunting. It is known on the grounds as “Babyland,” a burial place for infants and toddlers who were taken from the arms of their mothers and fathers long before their time.

These grounds are a part of our familial and community roots. When we release our fears, we begin to embrace that which has always been deep within us, around us, to bring us unconditional strength and love.